Submarine HL Hunley. The tragic experience of CSA

Replica of the Pioneer submarine. Photo Wikimedia Commons

During the Civil War in the United States, both sides of the conflict tried to create new types of weapons and equipment, and did not ignore the submarine fleet. In the shortest time, several submarines of various kinds were created, and the Confederates especially distinguished themselves in this matter. They were also able to be the first to carry out a real combat operation using a submarine – it was the HL Hunley ship.

Enthusiasts get down to business

In the pre-war period, technical circles actively discussed the possibility of building a submarine capable of secretly approaching a surface target and delivering a subversive charge to it. Work on a real model of this kind for the KSA Navy started at the end of 1861 – almost simultaneously with the development of the future USS Alligator submarine for the Union fleet.

The main submarine enthusiasts in CSA were Horace Lawson Hunley (chief designer), James McClintock (chief sponsor) and Baxter Watson of New Orleans. At the end of 1861, they developed and laid down the experimental submarine Pioneer. In February 1862, the boat began to be tested on the river. Mississippi, and these activities took about two months. However, at the end of April, the enemy’s offensive forced the designers to flood the Pioneer and leave the city.

Submarine HL Hunley.  The tragic experience of CSA
Submarine HL Hunley performed by artist R. Skerett, 1902 Painting from the archives of the Naval Historical Center /

The enthusiasts moved to Mobile, Alabama and started from scratch. Using the experience of the previous project, they designed the improved boat Pioneer II or American Diver. Due to numerous delays, the American Diver was launched only at the beginning of 1863.

After trials lasting several weeks, it was decided to be used in a real operation. The submarine was supposed to covertly approach one of the enemy ships that participated in the naval blockade of Mobile, and undermine it. However, this plan was not implemented. Even at the stage of entering the operational area, the submarine was damaged and sank. The crew escaped, but the recovery and restoration of the ship was considered inappropriate.

New project

After two failures, only one of the founders remained in the team of enthusiasts, H.L. Hanley. He decided to continue working, and soon another project appeared. Initially, the third submarine bore innocuous working names such as Fish Boat or Porpoise. Later she was named after the developer – HL Hunley. However, the boat was never officially accepted into the Navy, which is why it did not receive the CSS Hunley type designation.

Submarine diagram. Figure Naval Historical Center /

“Hanley” had a very simple design, even against the background of its predecessors. It was a single-hull submarine with a sturdy boiler iron hull. The body had a cross-section close to elliptical. The bow and stern ends were made in the form of fairings. On top of the boat there were a pair of turrets with hatches, on the sides – the rudders, in the stern – the propeller and rudder. The length of the product did not exceed 12-13 m with a maximum width of less than 1.2 m and a height of 1.3 m. Displacement – approx. 6.8 t.

In previous projects, H. Hanley and colleagues studied the possibility of using various engines, but in the end they abandoned them. All of their submarines received a “manual” power plant. A crankshaft passed along the central part of the hull, which the divers were supposed to rotate. Through a gear train, it communicated with the propeller. This system was notable for its simplicity, but did not allow getting a speed of more than 3-4 knots.

Depth control was carried out using onboard rudders. The submarine carried dumped ballast on the bottom – in an emergency it was possible to get rid of it and quickly surface. The strength of the hull made it possible to submerge only a few meters.

Interior of a modern replica “Hunley”, view of the stern. The crankshaft and the simplest gearbox are clearly visible. Photo Wikimedia Commons

The crew consisted of eight people. Seven had to work with the crankshaft and provide propulsion. The eighth was the commander and helmsman. He was also responsible for plotting the battle course and executing the attack.

Initially, the “Fishing Boat” was supposed to carry a towed mine on a cable. It was assumed that on the combat course, the submarine would have to submerge and pass under the target. In this case, the warhead will remain close to the surface and hit the enemy ship. However, this scheme was not reliable enough, and they decided to equip the submarine with a pole mine. It was a copper container with 61 kg of black powder, suspended on a 6.7-m pole. Provided for the possibility of dropping a mine followed by remote detonation using a cable.

First problems

Construction of the future HL Hunley began in early 1863 at Mobile, and in July the ship was launched. The first checks were successful, incl. training attack of the target ship. The combat qualities of the submarine were demonstrated to the command of the CSA and received good reviews. Soon after, the Hunley was transported by rail to Charleston (South Carolina) for further testing and combat training.

Sloop USS Housatonic. Drawing by Wikimedia Commons

The naval trials were conducted by a volunteer crew led by Lieutenant John A. Payne. Supervision and support was provided by H.L. Hanley and his colleagues. The first exits to the sea were successful, and now diving has become the main task. Such a test was scheduled for August 29.

An accident occurred while preparing to dive. During the horizontal movement on the surface, the boat commander accidentally stepped on the rudder control lever. The ship began to sink, and water began to flow into the hull through the open hatches. In a matter of minutes, the submarine sank. Lieutenant Payne and two sailors were able to escape, the remaining five were killed.

Attack on the sloop USS Housatonic. Drawing by William Wade from the collection of the Library of Congress, 1864

Soon HL Hunley was raised, the dead submariners were buried. After some preparation, the boat was again taken out for testing. Until a certain time, they passed without problems. On October 15, 1863, a training attack was carried out on the surface. This time the crew was headed by H.L. himself. Hanley. During the exit to the target, the submarine began to draw water and sank, taking the entire crew to the bottom, including its creator.

Real operation

The ship was too valuable to be left at the bottom. The submarine was again raised and repaired, and then brought back to testing. Fortunately, in the following events there were no casualties and material losses. Taking into account the tragic experience, the Confederates were able to work out the issues of driving and combat use of the new model. Now it was necessary to organize a real combat operation.

On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Hunley submarine, under the control of Lieutenant George E. Dixon, secretly left the port of Charleston and headed for the 1260-ton USS Housatonic steam-sailing sloop, which had participated in the naval blockade of the city. The combat mission was simple – to deliver a pole mine to the enemy ship, detonate it and secretly return to the port.

The rise of the sunken submarine, August 8, 2000 Photo by Naval Historical Center /

The Confederate divers were able to set a charge on board the sloop and lay down on the return course. As a result of the detonation of a mine, a large hole appeared on board the USS Housatonic. In a matter of minutes, the ship collected water and sank to the bottom. Five crew members were killed, dozens were injured and injured.

Shortly before the explosion, a light signal from a submarine was seen on the shore. Her crew reported on the successful installation of the charge and the imminent return home. However, HL Hunley never returned. Thus, “Hunley” became the first submarine in the world to successfully complete a combat mission and sink a surface ship, and at the same time the first to fail to return from a campaign.

At the crash site

The search for the exact place of death of HL Hunley and J. Dixon’s crew continued for a long time and ended only in 1995.The ship was only a few meters from its own mine that blew up the USS Housatonic. The study of the remains of the boat at the site allowed us to draw some conclusions and offer certain versions.

Restoration work, 2005 Photo Naval Historical Center /

In 2000, the wreckage of the Hunley was raised to the surface with all precautions. The remains of the crew were buried after examination. The submarine was sent for conservation, and after a few years, restoration and conservation were carried out. The boat is now located in a separate exhibition pavilion Warren Lasch Conservation Center (North Charleston), available for excursions. To avoid damage, it is stored in a pool with a stabilizing solution. A copy was also built, which does not require special conditions and therefore is in an open exhibition.

Numerous examinations, studies and experiments eventually made it possible to establish the cause of the death of the submarine. HL Hunley did not have time to retreat to a safe distance, and when the mine was detonated, it took over the shock wave. Having passed through the water, the hull of the boat and the air inside it, the wave weakened a little – but even after that it was able to damage the boat and inflict internal injuries on the crew. Having lost consciousness, the submariners could not take up the fight for survivability.

Negative experience

During its short “career” the submarine of the Navy KSA HL Hunley went to the bottom three times. In these incidents, 21 people died, including the chief designer. She managed to take part in only one real operation, during which she sent a rather large enemy ship to the bottom, but she died herself and practically did not affect the course of the war.

Submarine HL Hunley in a special pool. Photo Wikimedia Commons

From the point of view of design or combat use, the project of H.L. Hanley was unambiguously unlucky. To some extent, it can be justified by the lack of experience and necessary components, the need to find optimal solutions, etc.

However, the negative experience of the project has confirmed some things that now seem obvious. The KSA Navy learned that the construction and use of submarines is extremely difficult, responsible and dangerous business. Any design flaw or crew error can lead to the disruption of the operation and the death of people.

Recommended For You

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *